Friday, June 21, 2024

Birria’s earthy mix of chiles, spices and herbs is conquering the world stage

Traditional birria, made with lamb or goat, originally hails from Jalisco, where it’s a standard at weddings, parties and holiday gatherings, and also a hangover remedy for said celebrations. The flavorful stew can be made thick or thin, eaten with corn tortillas and topped with fresh onions and cilantro.

But the taco of Instagram fame came out of Tijuana, where enterprising cooks, using beef instead of mutton, folded the flavorful braised meat into a tortilla filled with melted cheese and served it with a broth for dunking.

In the last few years, it’s become a “culinary craze” all over the United States and beyond, and I must admit I love quesabirria tacos too, especially for breakfast.

In what is actually typical of Mexican cuisine — but unknown to many cooks in Western countries — an assortment of chiles is what makes birria so notable and deliciously earthy, irresistibly sweet and spicy all at the same time. Those of us in Mexico are lucky that we can find these dried chiles easily; readers north of the border may have to search a little harder.

Birria is traditionally cooked long and slow with pots of the marinated meat steamed in an underground oven much like barbacoa. This ensures that all the flavor is released from the bones and a complete melding of the spices, chiles, herbs and other ingredients.

birria stew
In Jalisco, don’t hold your wedding without some birria!

Without an underground oven, modern-day methods include using a slow cooker or Instant Pot or just several hours of slow, covered braising in the oven. While it’s a bit time-consuming to make the marinade and sear the meats, the end result is well worth the effort, and once everything is in the oven, you’re free to do whatever.

Part of the allure of quesabirria tacos is the combination of the crisped tortilla shells, red with spice and fat, the gooey melted cheese and the delight of dipping the whole thing into a flavorful consommé.

Is it easier to find a restaurant that serves it and just go out to eat? Definitely. But for those adventurous cooks who want to try making it at home, birria is an immensely satisfying (and impressive!) dish to add to your culinary repertoire.

Quesabirria Tacos

  • 5 dried guajillo chiles
  • 3 dried morita chiles
  • 3 dried pasilla chiles
  • 1½ Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 lb. beef brisket or beef chuck roast
  • 2 lb. oxtails, short ribs, or beef shank
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 10 cloves garlic
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1½ tsp. cumin seeds
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, halved
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 5 bay leaves
  • Corn tortillas
  • Shredded Oaxaca or mozzarella cheese
  • Minced fresh cilantro and white onion
  • Lime wedges

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place all chiles into a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Over medium heat, toast 1–2 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove to a bowl; cover with 3 cups boiling water.

Submerge chiles for 20 minutes until rehydrated and pliable. Remove chiles, reserving liquid.

Season beef with salt and pepper. Add oil to Dutch oven. Heat on medium-high. Working in batches, sear beef thoroughly (6–7 minutes per side for brisket/roast, 4–5 minutes for bone-in parts). Set aside.

In blender, add dehydrated chiles, garlic, cloves, cinnamon stick, oregano, cumin seeds, tomatoes, vinegar and 1½ cups of chile liquid. Carefully process 1 minute until mixture becomes a pourable paste.

Return beef to Dutch oven over medium heat; add onion and bay leaves, then chile paste and enough water to just cover the beef (about 3–4 cups). If using Instant Pot or slow cooker, at this point, see instructions for each of these options below.

Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover and place in preheated oven. Braise 4 to 4½ hours until beef is fork-tender. Discard bay leaves and onion; transfer meat to a cutting board. Reserve all broth/consommé. Shred beef; set aside.

Season consommé with salt and pepper to taste. If desired, thin with water, chicken or beef stock. Bring to a simmer and taste/season again.

ingredients for birria tacos
Outside Mexico, the chiles you need may require some hunting down.

In an Instant Pot: follow recipe for sauce above. Sear meat in Instant Pot or stovetop. Place sauce and meat in Instant Pot; cook on high in the Stew setting for about 50 minutes. Remove meat and shred, reserving liquid (consommé). Continue for instructions to make quesabirria tacos.

In a slow cooker: make the sauce as stated in the recipe. Sear the meat, then pour in the sauce and broth. Cook on high for 6–7 hours. Remove meat and shred, reserving liquid (consommé). Continue for instructions to make tacos.

To make quesabirria tacos: Bring consommé to a simmer (there will be a layer of dark red fat on the top). Heat a comal or cast-iron pan over medium. Line up bowls with shredded Oaxaca cheese, cilantro and onions; place tortillas and shredded beef nearby.

Working in batches, place about ⅓ cup of beef in comal or pan and sear, stirring to evenly brown. Dip one corn tortilla into consommé, coating both sides with the red fat. Place on the pan/comal and cover with cheese.

Fry tortilla for 3 minutes until cheese has mostly melted and the underside has browned and started to crisp. Place a small amount of the seared meat onto one half of a tortilla; top with cilantro and white onion. Fold into a taco and sear each side for 30 seconds and remove.

Repeat with all the meat. Serve tacos with lime wedges and small bowls of consommé for dipping. —

Birria María Cocktail

 The Bloody Mary’s Mexican cousin!

  • Tajín (find it in your market sold with the spices)
  • 1 cup cold birria broth, skimmed of fat, strained
  • 2 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1 oz. fresh orange juice
  • 1 oz. tequila blanco
  • Hot sauce to taste
  • Salsa Maggi or Worcestershire sauce
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Cold beer (like Pacifico)
  • Lime wedges, for garnishing

Rim two pint glasses with Tajin. In a cocktail shaker, add broth, tequila, lime and orange juice. Add hot sauce, Salsa Maggi and vinegar to taste.

Fill shaker with ice, secure lid and shake vigorously at least 30 seconds. Strain into the glasses.

Top with beer; stir to blend. Garnish with lime wedges.

  • Have you ever tried this dish, perhaps at a party with your Mexican friends? What did you think of it? We’re curious to hear your experiences with this unusual sweet, sour and spicy food.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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